Making sense of New Delhi’s Taliban rapprochement

As a ‘civilisational state’ and inspiring global power, India cannot behave as a transactional, opportunistic salesman

June 27, 2022 12:08 am | Updated 04:30 am IST

The Taliban in Kabul

The Taliban in Kabul | Photo Credit: AFP

The Pakistan-led coalition’s success and luck in toppling a United States-supported constitutional order in Afghanistan has brought to surface unexpected developments. While a growing number of the Taliban’s western and regional lobbyists are distancing themselves from their pyrrhic victory, India pulled a rabbit out of its diplomatic hat by sending a senior diplomatic delegation to the Taliban-occupied Kabul. The visit was the culmination of Delhi’s months of quiet diplomacy and signalling. Just hours after the Taliban’s takeover, in 2021, India was the first country to immediately ban all Afghans travelling to India, including students and patients with a valid Indian visa. In a significant but not widely-covered decision, India chose to abstain from the UN Security Council’s calling on the Taliban to open girl schools and continues to remain silent about a worsening situation in Afghanistan.

India’s apparent reorientation can be described and understood as an example of realpolitik, supremacy of national interest and a superficiality of “values” and “sentiments” in the Hobbesian world of international politics. India’s neutral stance on Russia’s entanglement in Ukraine reveals the Indian version of “First India” foreign policy.

Editorial | Gradual engagement: On India-Taliban ties

However, Delhi’s flirtation with the Taliban raises a number of pertinent questions: What are India’s key strategic interests in Afghanistan? How can a potential India-Taliban rapprochement advance such interests? Does the Taliban have the intent and/or capacity to deliver on their promise and vice versa? How would India engage with the anti-Taliban constituencies? How will India’s aspiration to become a global power be served by aligning with an unacceptable regime such as the Taliban?

India as alliance’s target

Afghanistan is a security-centric concern, in particular, the nexus of Islamic militancy, illicit drugs and proxy warfare. India is a primary target for this alliance. The Taliban’s victory realised two important ideological and strategic goals of militant Islamists and their Pakistani patron: establishing a “pure Islamic Government” in the Heart of Asia and securing Pakistan’s “Strategic Depth”. The two concepts are necessary pre-conditions for attaining another long-held vision of Islamists, Ghazwa-e-Hind.

There are both historical precedents and existing infrastructure in support of the nexus of religious zealots, tribal warriors and imperial ambitions. Mahmud Ghaznavi was the first to recruit tribal warriors from today’s Afghanistan/Pakistan border region to attack and plunder India more than 1,000 years ago. The British applied a similar strategy in undermining and eventually toppling Afghanistan’s progressive King Amanullah Khan in the early 20th century. In its first war against India in 1948, Pakistan mobilised a tribal army to attack India.

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India’s engagement with the Taliban: what’s next?

The central pillar of the West’s anti-Soviet strategy in Afghanistan was to fund and support the Mujahideen via a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-led operation, named “Operation Cyclone”. Pakistan’s geo-strategic vision for Afghanistan is to create a “Greater Waziristan”, to be ruled by an isolated, ruthless and dogmatic Taliban’s reign, funded by United Nations/western humanitarian assistance. In return, Greater Waziristan” would become a major centre for producing, training and sheltering different brands of “tribal/Islamist warriors” for different markets. Afghanistan’s over 6,000 religious madrassas will be further incorporated into Pakistan’s plus 40,000 madrassas to create the world’s largest network of militancy-inspired educational institutions.

Wishful thinking

New Delhi also seems hopeful of capitalising on the personal grudge some Taliban commanders have against Pakistan and hence its wishful thinking to create an India-friendly faction within the Taliban. Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment has shown its ruthless and efficient way in dealing with dissident, “out-of-control” and “outdated” proxies. The fate of Pakistani politicians such as Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, or Pakistan’s Afghan proxies such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour showed Pakistan’s zealous determination to maintain its monopoly on its proxies. India’s ruling party’s anti-Muslim inclinations have also provided additional ammunition to the advocates of “Ghazwa-e-Hind”.

The facts on the ground are often cited to justify a realistic foreign policy; a justification by those who advocate engagement with the Taliban. There are also other facts that should be taken into account. The U.S.’s peace agreement with the Taliban ended the U.S.’s half-hearted and confused hostility with the Taliban. It did not however terminate other drivers of the Afghan conflict. The following social media trends among Afghan users reveal the full picture of the sorrow conflict: SanctionPakistan; LetAfghanGirlsLearn; StopHazaraGenocide; StopTajikGenocide; PartitionAfghanistan. The Taliban have excluded all non-Taliban Pashtuns from public space as is shown by the house detention of former President Hamid Karzai; there are also systematic violations of the human rights of the non-Pashtun communities which amount to crime against humanity, and ethnic cleansing which borders on genocide. For the first time, the partition of the country into Pashtun-dominated and Farsiwan-dominated polities has, sadly, become political discourse among the Farsiwan constituencies.

Fallacy of ‘India First’

An “India First” policy seems to drive Delhi’s Taliban rapprochement. If so, it will destroy a central pillar of India’s foreign and security policy, the dismantling of the region’s “terrorist infrastructure”. The Taliban’s victory is the best product of this infrastructure. It would defy logic to be simultaneously critical of a production system while embracing its premium product. India as a “civilizational state” and an inspiring global power cannot behave as a bandwagoning, transactional, opportunistic salesman.

Notwithstanding India’s strategic hesitancy and caution during the last two decades in Afghanistan, it attained two important benchmarks of becoming an ideational and trustworthy partner. Many Afghans looked at India as an example of a fellow developing nation that overcame the many challenges of building and sustaining a functioning democratic polity. More importantly, India was seen as a sincere friend of Afghanistan, unlike many double-faced actors. Even for an “interest”-based foreign policy, it is counterproductive to lose the trust and goodwill of Afghans toward India by embracing a policy that is doomed to failure on multiple grounds.

Since August 15, 2021, Afghanistan has descended from a Pax Americana experiment to a “Pax Pakistana” ambition. The prospects for peace and stability in Afghanistan under a Pax Pakistana lordship are not feasible as Pakistan itself is overwhelmed by multiple internal and external challenges. Afghanistan needs a strong UN mandate, including a UN-led political transition process supported by a UN peace keeping/making force. India can lend its support to such endeavours which are worthy of its character, ambition and Afghanistan’s needs.

Davood Moradian is Director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). He has previously worked in the Office of President Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Chief Policy Adviser. He has taught in the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and the American University of Afghanistan

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